Plagiarism: Philosophy Edition


When teaching philosophy, especially a course on ethics, it is not uncommon for instructors to challenge their students to do what we call “argument reconstructions”. They are, as they sound, a task that asks students to figure out what the main argument of an article is, how the author supports their argument, and reconstruct it in a manner whereby a relatively intelligent 6th grader (or their roommate…) could understand what is going on.

A challenge with doing this however is that many of the pieces that we use in class are used across the country and sometimes across the globe. In some instances, there are people and even instructors who have posted notes, outlines, and essays on the very articles we are using in class. With this in mind, it is not uncommon for students to “stumble” across (i.e., google) these resources in the course of writing their essays. It is sadly not uncommon for first year philosophy students to take the main points from their essays from these sites as well.

When they *do* take their ideas, talking points, and (rarely) complete paragraphs from these sites, the TAs and the instructor are faced with a choice to report the student to the student conduct board or to do something else. Here, I challenge us to think about how we can address problems of cheating using restorative practices and in the process refuse ethically to use a system that stands as a retributive model of justice.



RJ/RP are models of addressing harms to persons and communities that stand opposed to retributive models. These models are such that the parties and communities involved are called into conversation with one another, the party that caused the harm is asked to name what their impact was on their community and on themselves, they are asked to name what they can do to repair the harm done, and ultimately instead of being ostracized from a community for breaking an expectation, or policy, they are welcomed back into the community.

Retributive models, in contrast, take a “exclude from the island” approach whereby a person does something wrong, the infraction is taken to be a reflection of their character as a person, and they are “kicked off the island” so to speak in the belief that all a community needs is to exclude the “bad” people who are harmful to the community. I don’t like this model for many reasons (including the obvious one that eventually almost everyone will have been kicked off the island for one reason or another) as I believe that we ought to separate actions from persons and call people into an opportunity to make the changes, and choices, that will benefit them in their time within a given community.



Every semester for Morality and Justice we have had somewhere between a quarter and a third of our students plagiarize their papers. By “plagiarize” I am not including the folks who simply don’t include citations though we have conversations with them as well. Rather, these are students who saw something on the internet, thought it looked right, and did a type of copy-pasta job for their essay.

When this happens, we start the class with a blunt statement: x% of people plagiarized their papers. We know who they are. We know the websites people used or looked at. We are willing to be lenient this time. In saying this, we leave it up to the students who feel that they may have plagiarized to meet with their TA, on their own time, within the week or they will be reported.

The response to this is, as expected, panic. Students who didn’t plagiarize will come to the office panicked that they accidentally got flagged (sometimes they got the argument so wrong that their papers do get flagged). Students who didn’t cite profess sincere regret for their oversight and laziness. Students who know what they did, and that they did something that may not have been okay, tend to send matter of fact emails asking to meet.

Across the board, one by one, they make their way to the TA’s office during the coming days. In this case, to my office.

When I speak with these students there are a few common things that come up. First, when I ask them to describe their English courses in high school rarely do proper citations and formatting make their way to the forefront of their account. This is not to say they didn’t “learn” about citations in High School (though having been in average English classes for a few years in High School I can attest to the deplorable presentation of such things at least some of the time). At the least, it wasn’t memorable. Second, when I ask them to describe plagiarism most tend to figure out that copy and pasting things word for word is bad (but there are cultural differences at play here sometimes that shouldn’t be ignored). Fewer know how many words in a row it takes to count as plagiarism, that citing incorrectly can count, etc.

Now, when I name this dynamic it is common for folks to say: “Well yes, Lindsay, that’s what they say but aren’t they just lying to stay out of trouble?”. To this I don’t have much sympathy as I think it explains away the systemic and systematic shortcomings of a system that is supposed to serve and aid our students in knowing how to write. More to the point, I tell the students in my office from the start that they aren’t being turned in since I want a conversation and to know both what they know, what they don’t know, and how we can move forward together to make sure they have the skills they need to be successful in their time here at VT.

The students who knowingly plagiarize tell me they messed up, were short on time, that they just didn’t get the piece, etc. As such, I am more inclined to believe the ones that profess ignorance since the ones who aren’t ignorant are situated such that they can tell the truth without censure. Could some lie? Yes. But that’s on them. But I digress.

For both the knowingly plagiaristic and the ignorant, I have a sit down conversation where we go over what plagiarism is, what it looks like, the formal university policy, what the sanctions could have been, and what they will be if the student doesn’t start practicing sound writing practices.



After the initial terror, crying, and self-flagellation, my students don’t plagiarize the rest of the semester. Or, if they do, they do it in a way that neither myself or any of the other TAs notice. While this latter possibility may be of concern for some folks, to me I already know I’ll have students from the beginning who plagiarize and who we don’t catch or notice. I can’t control their choice, but I am unwilling to let the possibility of adding a few more nay-sayers to the pile dissuade a model of intervention that avoids the pitfalls of retributive models. I’ll say more to this in a moment.

In addition to the lack of (obvious) plagiarism, the calling-in model serves also to open lines of communication among myself and the students I facilitate. For some, sitting down in my office for a discussion of plagiarism is the first time they’ve been to my office. It is rarely the last though since, in having their foot in the door, those students are more likely to come to office hours, to check-in with me about their future assignments in addition to being exceedingly careful in their citations for future essays, etc. As such, this calling-in model achieves more than a mere avoidance of plagiarism. It builds connections and community.



I am not saying here that I never send students to the board. I have and do if they plagiarize a second time, if they plagiarized another student’s work, or if they refuse to meet with me to talk about the problem. I use it as a last resort though. Why? Because of the model of the board.

Currently, for students who go in front of the board there are a few options. They can admit that they plagiarized and accept the recommended penalty, they can admit that they plagiarized but say that they deserve a less penalty (in which case there will be a hearing but the panel can decide a more sever penalty if they feel it is warranted I think), or they can deny plagiarism. If they deny it, and are found guilty, they get an F* even if that is not the sanction recommended by the instructor or TA.

This last point if why I am hesitant to use this system. To me, it seems that ethically we shouldn’t have a system that encourages even the wrongfully accused to admit guilt in the off chance that they would be found guilty and more severely punished. I am an ethicist and, to me, we are obligated to build community, connections, understanding, and a process whereby actions that harm the community are addressed, relationships are repaired, and at the end of the day there is at least the initial opportunity to make the necessary changes on one’s own accord.

This is not a model favored or encouraged within many systems, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a model we ought to be using instead of the current one.

10 thoughts on “Plagiarism: Philosophy Edition”

  1. I actually love this idea. It reminds me of what I did with a student (who was otherwise bright and cooperative) who did not achieve the grade he was hoping for on a big assignment. He sent me an email accusing me of being unfair and ranting about how he wrote an A paper. Once I closed my laptop, took a deep breath, and re-opened it, I invited him to come discuss the paper with me during office hours, stating that I would reconsider his grade as appropriate during our conversation. We went through each part of the rubric, him making his argument and me mine, and gradually we came to a compromise in the grade. I like to think that this tactic helped him to see his instructors as human and to understand the grading process a bit more clearly, as your tactics likely do with these potentially salvagable students.

  2. I particularly enjoyed the distinction you draw between the two modes; restorative practices and retributive model. I found it to be extremely helpful. Good job!

  3. I really like this approach, and I appreciate you putting into more official or academic words what I’ve been thinking for a while: that people make mistakes, and it’s better to help them to realize and correct their mistakes than just punish them for the sake of punishing them. I think your approach provides a teaching opportunity for those students who just made a mistake, and shows the ones who knowingly plagiarized that you’re paying attention (which will probably make them less likely to re-offend).

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